So spoke Benjamin Franklin in 1787 at the end of the convention to write the U.S. Constitution. He spoke in answer to a questioner who wondered what kind of nation this gathering of politicians had created. A monarchy like most European nations?
Answer: a republic, but only if you can keep it.
Ancient Rome also began as a republic but descended into tyranny. Why? For centuries, historians have studied possible reasons.
Some cite moral decline. Roman citizens became more interested in “bread and circuses” than in serving their republic, as they had in the beginning.
Or perhaps they yielded to the temptation to cede power to a dictator when times are hard. Citizens find it easy to believe a Caesar or a Hitler who promises easy solutions to economic problems or threats from enemies.
A democracy outlasts such threats if enough citizens look beyond the immediate present and choose long term goals, even sacrifice.
When Britain stood on the brink of extinction from the highly efficient German war machine at the beginning of World War II, their leader, Winston Churchill, didn’t promise a quick solution to the danger.
As the Nazis rolled over much of Europe, Churchill called for his people to stand firm while promising them “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” Citizens rallied and sacrificed for the long term goal of defeating Germany.
John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of young people by calling on them not “to ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
The vision of shared sacrifice is a powerful weapon. Not bread and circuses, but a sacrifice that includes all. Even the wealthy.